LIFE COULDN'T POSSIBLY BE MORE miserable for poor, long-suffering Anthony. In the final stages of AIDS and suffering from a terminal case of the shits, he has resolved to end it all while he is still strong enough to do so. He and his twittering, sweater-clad longtime companion Thomas enlist the aid of retired physician Robert Chapman to expedite the brutal process that HIV has already set into motion. At first staunchly opposed to the idea of helping someone off themselves, the very un-Kevorkian-like Chapman is eventually worn down by Anthony's chronic pain and agrees to help. Schooling Anthony on the proper dosage of pills to swallow and agreeing to stand by with a lethal injection should something go awry, Chapman ponders his role as an angel of mercy or a simple tool of death, struggling not only with the moral implications of what he is doing, but with an act that may land him in prison.

Eventually a plan is set into motion: Anthony, Thomas, and a mutual friend, Susanah, will dine together on the fateful day, reliving happy memories and saying good-bye. They will then set up a projector so Anthony can torture himself by watching a slide show of his life as he pops his fatal overdose, while Thomas and Susanah discreetly vacate for the evening. Enter Dr. Chapman with his handy hypodermic to do the dirty deed. Thomas and Susanah will then return to find Anthony peacefully dispatched and pray that none of them are discovered by the authorities.

Playwright David Rabe adapted A Question of Mercy from an essay based upon the true-life experience of Dr. Richard Selzer, who found himself faced with the moral dilemma of mercy killing a decade ago. This play raises many difficult and powerful questions: Does a man, living without hope of relief, have the right to take his own life? Does he have the right to ask for assistance? How do loved ones respond? How does each cope with the inevitable aftermath? The strength behind A Question of Mercy lies in that it considers, but doesn't attempt to actually answer, these questions. Refreshingly apolitical, Mercy's only agenda is to understand how one copes with such profound responsibilities, without ever becoming a tiresome moral dictator.

Producing a play like A Question of Mercy is problematic. At the tail end of the age of AIDS hysteria, with the face of the disease changing rapidly, the play is almost, but not quite, a period piece. Subject matter that would have been moving, disturbing, and terrifying a few years ago now leaves one in an emotional limbo land, often eliciting little more than a strange feeling of unease and even a few embarrassed chuckles ("Oh, Thomas! Oh, oh. OH!" as Anthony shits himself onstage and then delivers an unnecessarily sensual monologue of exactly how breakfast feels, running down his thighs). The play's saving grace lies in that it is not an AIDS play per se: it does not harp upon the moral implications of AIDS or homosexuality, a theme that has been done to death in film and on stage during the last decade. Anthony's disease is only the vehicle by which the story's true theme, the right to die, is explored. With the recent conviction of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, this story manages to remain current, resonant, and thought-provoking.

Be that as it may, A Question of Mercy is far from perfect. The play is potentially full of emotional punch, but falls into the trap of over-analyzing the issue. While exploring the implications of the theme from all angles, it never leaves the head long enough to affect the heart. Part of the problem is that I never truly felt Anthony's suffering. Jos Viramontes' portrayal had a vivaciousness and tenacity that belied the advanced state of his disease, leaving a whiny, carping quality in place of truly unbearable pain. Dr. Chapman (Jeffrey Hayenga) seemed more bullied into assisting the suicide than convinced, and never fully committed emotionally to end Anthony's pain. The moments that strive for emotional impact tend to become saccharine, overly sentimental, and clichéd (such as the entire "slide show" scene). However, the last 20 minutes of the play redeem the majority of its shortcomings, taking the story in an unexpected and satisfyingly original direction, with a surprising and powerful conclusion.

Director Victor Pappas' simple staging, along with Stephen Legrand's moving sound work, lends the story an austere and melancholy mood. Dates flash across the stage, counting down to the inevitable final moment, conveying the diary format of Rabe's script. Coupled with convincing performances by Jeffrey Hayenga (Dr. Chapman), Mark Sturgeon (the twitterpated Thomas), and a fun Edward Symington (the blue-collar doorman), A Question of Mercy is bound to force some uneasy reevaluations of the right to die issue, and may even successfully move you to tears.

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